Trump asks Congress for $7.9B down payment for Harvey relief

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump has sent lawmakers an initial request for a $7.9 billion down payment toward Harvey relief and recovery efforts.

The request, expected to be swiftly approved by Congress, would add $7.4 billion to rapidly dwindling Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster aid coffers and $450 million to finance disaster loans for small businesses.

Republican leaders already are making plans to use the aid package, certain to be overwhelmingly popular, to win speedy approval of a contentious increase in the federal borrowing limit.

A senior House Republican, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the deliberations were private, disclosed the approach. It ignores objections from House conservatives who are insisting disaster money for Harvey should not be paired with the debt limit increase. Other senior GOP aides cautioned that no final decision had been made, and Democrats, whose votes would be needed in the Senate, have not signed off on the approach.

For GOP lawmakers who support a straightforward increase in the debt limit, pairing it with Harvey money makes the unpopular vote easier to cast. Congress must act by Sept. 29 to increase the United States’ $19.9 trillion debt limit, in order to permit the government to continue borrowing money to pay bills like Social Security and interest. Failing to raise the debt limit would risk a market-shattering first-ever U.S. default.

“Look, some members are going to vote against the debt ceiling under any circumstances and they want their ‘no’ vote to be as easy as possible,” said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa. “The issue is not making the debt ceiling vote easier for the ‘no’ votes. The issue is making it easier for the ‘yes’ votes.”

The government’s cash reserves are running low since the nation’s debt limit already has been reached, and the Treasury Department is using various accounting measures to cover expenses. Billions of dollars in Harvey aid are an unexpected cost that at least raises the potential that Congress would have to act earlier than expected to increase the government’s borrowing authority.

The House is likely to pass the Harvey aid as a stand-alone bill, but GOP leaders are signaling the Senate may add the debt increase to it. Then the House would swiftly vote again to send it to Trump. The plan still is tentative, but the White House signaled it’s on board with the idea. White House budget director Mick Mulvaney urged lawmakers in a letter outlining the aid request to “act expeditiously to ensure that the debt ceiling does not affect these critical response and recovery efforts.”